TL;DR: By saying, “That sucks!” you can express authentic empathy. You don’t need to fix or solve things, just listen.
It’s a simple two-word phrase with immense power. Uttered with empathy and authenticity, “that sucks!” is probably one the most helpful things you could ever say to someone. Why? Because it communicates that empathy without trying to fix things, without talking down to anyone, and without argument or correction. It lets someone know you heard them and perceived their pain/frustration/anger/irritation/sadness/whatever while allowing them to continue leading the conversation.
Skye taught me this response. The first time she brought it up was during one of those moments when she accused me of not listening. In typical dude fashion, everything I said to her was some sort of solution or some form of the question, “are you sure ….?” You know, the sort of stuff that almost everyone does (yes, women do it too, but that’s a different blog post).
I Get It – You Just Want To Help
In our desire to commiserate, show compassion (express empathy mixed with a desire to help), to alleviate someone’s distress, we say things that just aren’t helpful. And sometimes we say something that’s harmful or somehow makes the conversation about ourselves instead of the person we’re trying to help. But that’s not what the person needs. More often than not, if the person needs help, they’ll ask for it. If they need advice, they’ll ask for it. They’ll ask for what they need, in most cases. But even if they don’t, it’s rarely our job to tell someone what they need. Who are we to decide that? How the hell would we know what someone else needs, unless they tell us?
Simply saying, “that sucks” is probably the best thing you can do in most situations. You should mean it – be authentic – but assuming that you do, say it! Let the person know you heard them and get that whatever they told you about does, indeed, suck. And then, if they’re receptive to more conversation, you can ask which part of their experience sucks the most, what life would look like if things didn’t suck, etc. Ask them to teach you about the way they experience the world. Ask them – don’t force them or insist – if they are willing to share more about the suck thing.
You don’t need to fix it. Nor do you need to solve their problem. You don’t need to offer your opinion. If these things are needed, the person you’re talking to will tell you.
I know it goes against your instincts. It went against mine when Skye first taught me how to listen to her. But trust me, it works. If your goal is to help your partner feel heard and express real empathy, put a lid on that part of your brain that wants to make everything better, shut your mouth, and just let them know that you get it. You can talk about solutions later. If your partner needs help fixing things, you can offer to help later. If there’s need for a hero, you can show up with your horse and armor later.
Level Up From “That Sucks!”
Sometimes you’re going to run into situations that call for more than “that sucks!” Remember, you’re listening to someone you care for. You want them to feel heard and understood. You want to express empathy.
So do that exact thing. Listen to what your partner is saying and respond with “that sounds really frustrating” or “wow, that sounds really sad” or another similar phrase that indicates you were listening and caught on to the speaker’s mood. Not sure how they feel? Ask them. Use reflective listening, mirror what your partner said with language like, “I heard you say….” and then give them the opportunity to rephrase their message. Rinse and repeat until they agree you’re mirroring them accurately.
There’s No Mystery
What I’m writing here is really basic stuff. There’s no mystery or secret code. There’s no magical incantation. Nothing you need to do. Simply listen to your partner without trying to fix them or their situation.
Simple, right? Yep. Easy? No.
Believe it or not, I had to practice saying, “that sucks.” Well, to be accurate, I had to practice saying just that and nothing else. I still haven’t mastered it – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve squished a perfectly good conversation by letting my white stallion trod roughshod over a vulnerable moment.
Why This Post In This Moment?
I’m glad you asked. (OK, maybe you didn’t ask, but go with me on this, please?)
I’ve been pretty open about my journey for several years now. The degree of openness waxes and wanes, but if you dig into my social media, you’ll find that I discuss mental health and emotional wellness more and more as I grow. That progresion has led to a couple of fundamental truths that I’ll talk about in future posts. For now, suffice it to say that my openness makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and they almost always try to commiserate, offer a solution, or tell me how to fix myself. It’s a little ironic, too, because I’m usually pretty clear about my intent. I share to help normalize the conversation surrounding emotional wellness, not to ask for help. Yet people can’t help themselves, and my post comments and DMs are full of “you ought to” and “you should” and “when I feel that way…”
I get it. All the comments are intended to communicate concern or empathy. Some are expressions of solidarity. But very few are expressions of empathy as pure as “that sucks!” or one of its more nuanced cousins.
We, as people who listen to and care about others, really need to work on this skill.